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School accreditation firm wields too much power

New law lets company manage school board

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On April 20, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill that gives him authority to replace members of the Atlanta school board by midsummer if the embattled system appears unlikely to shed its probationary status and regain full accreditation.

Hailing the move, Mayor Kasim Reed noted that a loss of accreditation "would cripple economic development and business investment in the city, region and state for years to come."

If only the governor's swift action can save our students and the city, then we'll be thanking our lucky stars come July that a bipartisan team of Atlanta legislators had the foresight to sponsor this bill.

But let's not fool ourselves into thinking this is anything but a setup with a predetermined outcome.

This isn't to imply that Deal, Reed — who lobbied for board-appointing power for himself — or state lawmakers have pulled a fast one. Arguably, they're playing the hand dealt them. However, rather than fixing any systemic problems within the school system, the new law only gives more influence to the private Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, its parent company, Alpharetta-based AdvancED, and, by extension, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. None of which is good.

The SACS report that placed the Atlanta schools on probation in January was a shockingly slapdash document brimming with hearsay and raw opinion that made no mention of the system-wide test-doctoring scandal that's now the subject of state and federal investigations. Teachers and school administrators could end up in prison, but the SACS report would have you believe the system's only real problem is that its board members can't get along.

The board has, indeed, been squabbling since last fall, when a five-member majority led by current Chairman Khaatim El staged a coup because the previous board leadership — hand-picked and backed by the Chamber — had helped try to cover up the cheating scandal. In other words, board discord is merely a symptom, but SACS acts as if it's the disease.

Certainly, the 29-year-old El has not succeeded in uniting the board or getting members to work together on the problems at hand. And clearly, the infighting is likely to continue until the governor — or voters — cracks some heads and restores order.

But the new law effectively gives AdvancED CEO Mark Elgart the power to dictate who should lead the system, since a functional school board is what he says it is. If you don't believe Deal will take Elgart's advice into account, then we've got a surplus classroom trailer to sell you. El may as well start packing up his desk now.

Unfortunately, SACS holds all the cards in this situation. But once the state wraps up the cheating investigation, it should turn its focus on the accreditation firm, whose flimsily sourced report and Chamber connections put its objectivity in question. Also, the AJC recently reported that, in an October memo, Elgart urged El to give the chairman's seat back to his Chamber-backed predecessor, LaChandra Butler Burks.

Most troubling is Elgart's reported suggestion to El and Burks that the school system hire his company for "mediation and professional support services." If the Mob were proposing a scheme like that, it'd be called a protection racket.

By all means, let's do what we need to in order to maintain accreditation, but keep in mind that the board friction is but a sideshow. Once the investigation is over and indictments start coming down, the real trouble begins.

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